Dumping Tokyo Is Not A Solution

The idea of moving Japan's seat of government is half political ploy, half waste of money. And it won't happen

There's something slightly surreal about the current debate in Japan over whether to move the government out of Tokyo, the country's power locus. It's an idea that has been pushed by the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and is actually getting serious consideration in the Japanese Diet now.

The Dump Tokyo crowd thinks 21st century Japan needs a new capital. Tokyo is too crowded, too expensive, and earthquake-prone, they argue. All true, I guess. My favorite argument, though, is that shipping Japan's powerful ministries out to the sticks is the only way to break the corrupt nexus between bureaucrats and the business world. On top of that, the economy would get a fresh boost from the multiplier effect such a major public-works bonanza would bring.

A fresh boost? Come on. First, the country has spent $1 trillion-plus on building bridges, highways, and concert halls in rural Japan with little to show for it except a world-class budget deficit. Japan is swimming in a sea of red ink, and growth is stagnant. I doubt spending an estimated $200 billion to move the government to rural areas--such as the Fukushima, Gifu, or Kinki regional prefectures--would do much better.

Also, let's strip away the rhetoric. This proposal's backers in the LDP really don't care all that much about improving the "administrative efficiency" that they're spouting about these days. Moving the capital would be the mother of all public-works projects--and yet another wealth transfer from Japanese taxpayers in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka to their brethren in rural areas.

Fact is, the LDP lost badly in this summer's general election--at the hands of city voters. The LDP's support base, once solid countrywide, is centered out in the hinterlands today. And despite the fact that most people in Tokyo hate the idea of losing the seat of government to some upstart region, the LDP continues to push the idea forward.

Relocating the capital of Japan may happen someday, but not anytime soon. For one thing, Japan just can't afford the price tag of shipping out the ministries. Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone thinks the idea is flimsy and he wants the Diet to shelve it for good.

If the LDP ever wants to cultivate urban voters, it should focus not on stripping Tokyo of its influence, but on investing money to raise living standards and the quality of life for the throng already here. It isn't the provinces that need help. It's Japan's cities where reforms and fresh investments could improve the quality of urban housing that is substandard, cramped, and overpriced.

If the goal is really to rein in the bureaucrats who meddle in the economic affairs of the state, it's a question of mind-set, not geography. If the LDP is serious, it should make sure that a plan to overhaul and nearly halve the principal government agencies and ministries starting next January stays on track.

BETTER IDEAS. Rather than spending more money on bridges and tunnels in the provinces, Japan needs to follow through on plans to rewire cities and plow what it can into new growth industries to prepare for the Information Age. Also, if it took a machete to the pointless regulations and barriers keeping Japanese housing prices and telecommunication costs and services at nose-bleed levels, those souls living not only in the tiny hamlets of northwest Japan but also the urban sprawls along the Pacific Coast would see their living standards rise.

But that's the sort of thing that requires focus, political courage, and vision. It's far easier to back a wasteful and quixotic campaign to move the capital that will benefit a narrow constituency and make a few construction companies very rich. The LDP has much more pressing things to worry about.

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